By Sonia Hickey and Ugur Nedim
Concerns have re-emerged about Queensland police officers escaping discipline despite illegally accessing the personal information of individuals on a restricted police database.
Information released under the state’s right to information laws reveals that of 59 officers investigated internally after illegally accessing the Queensland Police Records and Information Management Exchange database [QPrime] between August 2016 and September 2017, only seven faced any form of disciplinary action – which represents less than ten percent.
What is QPrime?
QPrime is a secure online tool used for storing intelligence and administrative information that police are permitted to access to enable them to investigate offences.
It is used for anything from checking the details of speeding motorists, to determining whether a person has outstanding warrants, to investigating serious offences.
There are strict rules for accessing the database, and any unauthorised access amounts to a criminal offence.
No action taken
Despite finding that 59 officers used the database illegally, only four were charged with computer hacking offences.
One officer was charged for looking up personal details of his former girlfriends, as well as the former Australian netball captain, Laura Geitz, “out of curiosity”.
Two officers were dealt with by “chastisement”, while another two had their salaries reduced.
The failure to take action against the vast majority of offending officers has triggered criticism of police being allowed to police themselves, and not punishing their own.
It has also raised broader concerns about the culture of misconduct within the force, as well as the inadequacy of measures to protect the personal information of individuals.
Once of the more serious privacy breaches involved an officer providing a domestic violence victim’s abusive former partner with the victim’s residential address. The victim, Julie, was forced into hiding as a result and the abuser, who turned out to be the officer’s ‘mate’, was handed the means to further abuse his ex.
Despite this, the Queensland Police Service (QPS) saw fit not to bring charges against the officer.
That case was later investigated by the Crime and Corruption Commission (CCC) which reviewed a series of text messages between the officer and his friend, the abuser ‘Ronald’.
In the exchange, the senior constable advised his mate to “just tell her you know where she lives and leave it at that”.
The officer then told Ronald that Julie would “flip out” and “f—ing explode” when she realised Ronald had her address.
At one point, the officer told Ronald that: “The police will contact you if they want to speak to you … then you give them my name. That is your get-out-of-jail-free card.”
Despite all of the evidence, Police Commissioner Ian Stewart claimed, “There… [is] insufficient evidence to place it before a criminal court.”
Most large organisations that store sensitive personal data implement systems to ensure the information is organised in such a way that only those who are authorised can access information that is relevant to their specific roles.
Such systems also require information to be recorded about who accessed the data and for what purpose.
However, this appears not to be the case for QPrime – despite the enormous amount of information stored and the proven potential for misuse.
QPS says that in a 2016 directive, all staff were advised about the appropriate use of information on the database. It says members, both sworn and unsworn, were warned that breaching the policy amounts to misconduct and could in criminal charges.
And last year, the Queensland Police Union published guidelines for officers and suggested they document their access to the database.
However, this is clearly not sufficient and better systems need to be implemented to prevent misuse.
The president of the Queensland Council for Civil Liberties, Michael Cope, believes the 59 cases investigated are just the “tip of the iceberg” and that given the lack of disciplinary action against offending officers, “[t]he public has lost confidence in this process”.